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Trailer park thrash?

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 17:36 -- Ruth Williams

2-40OK you’ve got the 40 foot trailers, you’ve got your electricity storage devices installed, you’ve got your demo programme cost shared with the US Department of energy, so now, where’s the business? All over the USA, the ubiquitous freight containers are filling up with batteries of various chemistries, inverters and control gear in order to demonstrate the validity of electrical energy storage.

This year’s 22nd Annual meeting of the Electricity Storage Association (ESA) in Washington was a not unlike my visit to the Smithsonian Zoo, about a mile up the street from the Wardman Park Marriott where the meeting was held. There was a lot of promise about what there could be and what there might be soon, in terms of new enclosures and exhibits but not too much evidence of what’s happening now. The zoo is undergoing a refurbishment. I saw one elephant and a couple of gorillas— a metaphor perhaps for the ESA meeting? Not quite. Zoos are established but the electricity storage industry, beyond the areas of standby power, is yet to really take off.

The US-based organisation itself has undergone a transformation over the past couple of years. Borne out of the well?meaning efforts of a few foresighted engineers from the power utilities, battery companies and some consultants, with some tacit support from the US Department of Energy, it’s worked out that good science and engineering isn’t enough to make something happen in the boring world of utilities. 


No, you need to change rules, ideas and thinking. In other words— political lobbying.

But that costs money— lots of money. And where’s that going to come from? The conference and the trade association because with any number of opportunists coming to stage their “Get Into Storage and Get Rich” event, you need to maximise the return on the event itself with five or six hundred delegates, a trade show and real engineers who know what storage is about.

2-41bBut here are the problems. The politicians get solar— PV panels, feed?in tarrifs; they get wind (and they’re full of it) but peak shaving, frequency regulation, load shifting?

Big batteries? No. This is beyond them. 

So in order to influence the morons we all elect, no matter what political party, country or continent we’re in, we have to first influence the bright young things who work out whether the tax breaks the politicians would like to see happen, can actually deliver. Whether some new ‘Technullagy” is sexy enough to turn a voter’s head and whether there’s some political traction in the whole thing.

ESA has retained a lobbying agency called Quinn Gillespie which, according to the lobby monitoring website Open Secrets, has committed a mere US$50 000 in getting the case for electricity storage across to ‘the Hill’.

It’s a trifle in Quinn Gillespie’s fee portfolio— they’re earning a little over US$2million from this kind of activity, with companies like T?mobile spending as much as ESA, and Murdoch’s News Corporation spending a mere US$30 000.

Katherine Hamilton, ESA’s policy advocate outlined what the process was about and listed a few snippets of arcane legislative opportunities where “advocacy might help” in the next few months.

But this is, in the USA, an election year and nothing’s going to happen from the US Government this side of 2013, or probably not until 2014. A panel of bright young things from the Committee on Finance in the Senate, the sub?committee on Energy and Environment among others gave me no real indication that something was likely to happen to change the fortunes of this fledgling industry.

And besides, the big splurge of US Government funded activity has already happened— the US$185m of tax payers money put into demonstration projects with a total cost?share of some US$585m. 

That level of spending is unlikely to be surpassed and Imre Gyuk, with the US DOE, presiding over the ten?fold increase in Government supported activity, is likely to spend the rest of his career reporting on the relative success (or failure) of the 16 projects funded. 

Of these, only three are large?scale battery systems. And fortunes have changed since the projects were announced more than a year ago. An 8 MW, four hour battery plant is being built by A123 for integration in a wind farm at Tehahapi, in California, but given that company’s parlous financial situation, one has to ask will it be completed?

Another project being carried out by Primus Power, is creating a 25 MW, three hour battery for the Modesto Irrigation District in California using redox flow batteries. But hold on a moment— this company has never built batteries on anything like this scale before. 

Let’s not forget the financial disaster that beset Beacon Power, the frequency regulating flywheel builder, which filed for bankruptcy last October, thanks in part to US DOE terms and conditions on its loan guarantee.

But Dr Gyuk hails the project a success, because the company was saved by a private equity firm, even though the original investors (and developers of the flywheel technology) are out… And the project is doing exactly what it was meant to— regulating frequency. Rewarding innovators and investors is not a given.

Battery?powered frequency regulation is already mentioned in these pages at East Penn’s plant in Pennsylvania And there is another much larger project, using East Penn’s lead carbon technology (see page XX)— a 0.5 Mwatt unit for smoothening the same sized photovoltaic array.

These are the stars of the show. But where are the rest? Still perhaps in our dreams. Certainly still in the dreams of Terry Boston, President and CEO of PJM interconnection the utility serving 60 million people in the Eastern USA with some 185 MW of generating capacity and 65 000 miles of trasmission lines.

Boston says storage is the silver bullet. But bullets are usually symbolic of slaying things. One imagines storage is the bullet slaying the problem of integration of renewables and PJM plans to have 35 MW of windpower on line by 2015, But wind is intermittent. 

What’s not clear is, which storage technology will be one of choice for PJM for such a task, because there’s a lot more out there than mere batteries— compressed air energy storage is on a much bigger scale PJM is working with First Energy to develop a 130 MW compressed air energy storage system using a 338 million cubic feet cavern. Such a facility could provide 48 hours worth of storage and capacity can be increased in 150 MW units up to 2700 MW in total… you need a lot of batteries to match that.

But Boston is a keen supporter of community energy storage projects, what we in the UK used to call off-peak night storage for water heating, storage deployment on Philadelphia’s railways and more. And shale gas for power generation. How it all translates into new business for battery based energy storage is not clear to this writer.

Perhaps the newly emerging battery?based energy storage market is overseas— at least outside the USA and the two most promising markets are China and India.

China is developing its wind and solar power generation at an incredible rate and in a presentation from Shore Lin of China’s own electricity storage association, known as the China Energy Storage Alliance, it became evident how massive the opportunity is. There are already 42 projects undergoing construction; the largest at Zhangbei, providing smoothening to a large wind farm with 20 MW of capacity. 

China’s battery choice is split between lithium?ion and VRB’s flow?battery technology. But the financial commitment is huge— the Chinese plan to invest nearly US$500m which may buy perhaps 5-10 times the equivalent spend in the USA. There is one snag, of course, for foreign business. China already has a large indigenous lithium?ion battery industry, capable of making large format technology already slightly superfluous for the yet to take?off electric vehicle market.

The business drivers in China are much the same as they are in the West. The need to integrate renewables and decrease dependence on fossil fuels. But there are some unique issues. Much of the Chinese population in the west of the country has no direct access to electricity. 

You can see the perfect storm already: a rapid push by the Chinese could lead to global dominance in this market, but their fast?moving economy is dogged by the same problems that every other nation has: a utility industry that is slow to move and a lack of policy.

2-42If China is a technical and regulatory quagmire in the making, India might look more promising. Ron Somers, President of the US India Business Council painted a powerful picture. 

With nearly four times the population of the USA, the use of electricity per person in India is almost a 1/20 that of its first world neighbour and 40% of the population have no access to electricity at all. But the installed capacity is set to rise by some 76 000 MW in the next five years.

The power grid structure is a nightmare with distribution losses now down to about 30% and a peak demand deficit of more than 10%— no wonder it’s a good market for standby technology! According to Somers the potential for smart and microgrid projects abound.

Somers’ lists all of India’s good points: the common law judicial system, democracy and that it’s got the second largest number of engineers and PhDs in the world. But it’s also one the hardest places in the world to do business, according to the World Bank. And as for Europe? It doesn’t look too promising.

The EU has a new body to co?ordinate energy storage issues. It’s called EASE— the European Association for the Storage of Energy, Patrick Clerens, its new Secretary General told the meeting. It came into being last September and it’s got some big names as members— ÅBB, EDF, Eon to name a few.

Is there a need for storage in Europe? Of course, but the energy industry does its own thing in all 27 states (including how it deals with debt) but only two states (Germany and Slovakia) have tarrif policies that are remotely storage friendly. 

If the battery business is looking a trifle stressed in the hybrid car market, this meeting didn’t leave this writer any more optimistic about that happening for large scale storage.